Saturday, 19 August 2017


Three years ago I selected some public sculpture worth looking out for at Much of that was up for substantial but temporary period *, so here's a selection - mixing the obvious with the less obvious, but all on view outside** this summer. It's notable that the number of 'sculpture trails' is growing, and I've included one work each from The Line, Sculpture in the City and the newly-timed Frieze Sculpture Park...

Rana Begum: No. 700 - Reflectors, 2016 at Lewis Cubitt Square, KIng's Cross 

Walking the 50 metres along Bangladeshi-British artist Rana Begum installation of 30,000 reflectors compresses the experience of urban walking into the same space as the repurposing of functional items, an op-architectural take on minimalism and a spiritually infected nod to the potential infinity of repetition. And it remains good by night.

Saad QureshiPlaces for Nova, 2017 at Sir Simon Milton Square, opposite Victoria Station

Six steel vitrines at the Nova development contain  celotex 'mindscapes' coated with brick dust. Saad Qureshi made his first public commission from the memories provided to him by people passing through Victoria of a landscape - meaningful to them -  to which they no longer had access. The result, appropriate to its travel hub location, is a transnational tribute to the baggage-limit-proof transportation of memories. 

Julian Opie: Walking in Tower Hill, 2016 at Tower Hill Underground Station.

This frieze of  Julian Opie's distincively stylised  walkers is on the outside of a newly built Citizen M, a high tech hipsterish Dutch hotel which I pass most days on the way to work. It's well placed to relate to real life pedestrians, though Citizen J's figures aren't doing what many of those passing are: looking at a mobile phone's text messages...

Antony Gormley: one from the Bollards (Oval, Snowman, Peg, Penis), 2001 in Bellenden Road, Peckham

Antony Gormley's iron bollards, sited near his studio, based on the forms of a simple oval, snowman, peg and penis, are now rusting nicely. Not only are they refreshingly separate from his own body's  form, they also facilitate less orthodox forms of public interaction.

Karen Tang: Synapsid (2014) in Sculpture in the City, near Liverpool StreetThat's Karen Tang herself, looking unperturbed by what the title (a dinosaur grouping) and colour (radioactive reptilian) suggest could be a sci-fi menace. Perhaps, after all, it's just a bulbously colourful enjambment of abstract shapes, ideal for workers in the city to sit in when eating their sandwiches.

Bernar Venet17 Acute Unequal Angles, 2016 at Frieze Sculpture Park in Regents Park (photo Peter Mallet)

As a recent show at Blain | Southern demonstrated, there's more to French artist Bernar Venet than the monumental circular-tending bronzes which are rather ubiquitous on the continent. Still, those are all based on mathematical operations, making them platonic forms of a sort. The same is true of this impressive nest of triangles, part of a recent move towards acute angles of which Venet says 'you have a bunch of arcs in order, and boom - all of a sudden it’s like shoulders and elbows smashed into it'.

Jacqueline PonceletWrapper, 2012 at Edgeware Raod

Art on the underground is a topic of its own, of course, but most of it is, well, under the ground. An exception is Jacqueline Poncelet artist's vitreous enamel dressing of Edgeware Road's non-Bakerloo branch*** in gridded patterns derived from the locality: tiling from roofs, leaves from the park, water patterns from the Tyburn Stream... It must be the tube's biggest installation, even if you took added up the area covered by all 270 of Mark Wallinger's Labyrinth mazes at each station, and makes Poncelet more of a permanent London presence than her husband, Richard Deacon.  

Rona SmithAn Age, An Instant, 2014 at 10 New Burlington Street off Regent Street

Rona Smith's gate applies Poncelet's approach to the walls and the intricate bronze gates at the mews entrance to New Burlington Street, responding to Regent Street's history as a fulcrum for the manufacture of mechanical timepieces by building in references to the engravings on turn of the century pocket watches, as well as their cogs. An entrance to times past...

Erik Bulatov: Forward, 2016 outside Tate Modern

This monumental steel sculpture by Russian artist Erik Bulatov has been placed on the terrace outside Tate Modern to mark the centenary of the 1917 October Revolution. It consists of the word ‘forward’ spelled out four times in Cyrillic letters, each standing ten feet high, arranged in a wide circle. The heavy irony is well-timed: Brexit, here we come!

Ewa AxelradLet’s go. Yes, let’s go. (They do not move) in Bold Tendencies, Peckham Rye Car Park

Public art doesn't get much more famous than Trafalgar Square's  four 20 foot long bronze lions by Sir Edwin Landseer (1867). Hang on, though, young Polish artist Ewa Axelrad seems to be taking our patriotism down a peg or two with her version: stuck on a car park roof, titled from Beckett, made of fragile cinefoil, mired in tyres... 'Surely' says Major Brex-Barking, 'this is just why we shouldn't let anyone from Eastern Europe into our empire'.

Joel Shapiro: Verge, 2008 at Savile Row

American artist Joel Shapiro arrives at balance-defying anthropomorphic-come-architectonic forms by disassembling more coherent structures. This is two tonnes of bronze but floats 50 feet up in front of No 23, strung on tensioned wires. Verge, incidentally,  caps Hauser & Wirth's two spaces either side, which the mega-gallery might appreciate more were Shapiro not with their rival, Pace.

Eduardo Paolozzi: Vulcan, 1999 in The Line at Royal Victoria Dock

The biggest work on The Line is Eduardo Paolozzi's eight metre high bronze Vulcan, in which a half man,   half machine envisioning of the Roman god of fire and metalworking brandishes a blacksmith's hammer. A self-portrait, perhaps, as a cubo-surrealist sculptor. 

Pierre Vivant: Traffic Light Tree, 1998 at Trafalgar Way roundabout, Isle of Dogs

These 75 sets of computer-controlled lights have caused ocassional motorist confusion on two roundabouts, having been moved in 2014. French artist Pierre Vivant combines the shape of a London plane (the lights replaced a dying tree) with the ever-changing - yet, it would seem, ultimately pointless - activity of the markets at nearby Canary Wharf. And the Traffic Light Tree feels like full circle from Rana Begum's reflectors...

* Still up from previous choices Gavin Turk: Nail, 2011 at One New Change, St Paul's; Oliver Marsden: Dub, 2010 at 10 Rochester Row, Westminster; Clem Crosby: 180 Monochrome Paintings, 2004-06 at the Young Vic, Southwark; Wendy Taylor: Spirit of Enterprise, 1987 at Heron's Quay; James Hopkins: Angled Ball, 2011 near Wembley Stadium.

** I take my title from that of The Hague's route around over 100 public sculptures

*** transport nerd question: why are Portland Road and Regent's Park separate stations when the distance between Bakerloo and non-Bakerloo lines is less than at Edgeware Road, where they are treated as one station?

Thursday, 3 August 2017


It ought, I think, to be better known that The World of Interiors has excellent visual arts coverage, with a mixture of book reviews, exhibition previews and well-informed gallery recommendations. So I'd thought I'd gather up my own contributions here (all are  exhibition previews,
© The World of Interiors/ Condé Nast Publications) 


Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933

Tate Liverpool to 15 Oct 2017

Otto Dix: Self-Portrait with Easel, 1923 - mixed media on plywood
The combination of August Sander  (1876 – 1964) and Otto Dix (1891 – 1969) contrasts a painter and a photographer to generate a richly varied overview of Germany’s glamorous yet troubled  Weimar period, forever set in position by the tragedies which came before and after.  Both sought to depict its people objectively, but there is another contrast here between Sander operating ‘from outside in’, and Dix working ‘from inside out’.
 August Sander Photographer (August Sander), 1925

Sander, a mining apprentice who discovered his passion when asked to guide a visiting photographer, operated commercially before embarking on his life project ‘People of the Twentieth Century’ from 1910 onwards. He cycled round Germany seeking archetypes which he classified into seven sections, such as farmers, skilled tradesmen, and women. 

That schema fitted with a contemporary fashion for physiognomy, the belief that character and circumstance could be read into people’s faces. Sander recorded his subjects, typically with direct eye contact, against whatever background was convenient. He believed truthfulness depended on rapport, and seemed able to put people sufficiently at ease for private individuality to break through their public facades. Not everyone looks good - but, said Sander, ‘I never made a person look bad. They do that themselves’.


 August Sander: Turkish Mousetrap Salesman c.1924–30

The pox-marked ‘Turkish Mousetrap Salesman’ (1926) illustrates the dignity afforded the lowly. He is poised yet seems fearful, drawing us into dark eyes behind which it is easy to imagine a troubled life as we speculate from outside in.

August Sander: Young Teacher, c 1928
The village schoolteacher looks somewhat stiff in the jacket and tie indicating his relatively high status in a rural community, but his dog – ready to bound into the woods – has a potential energy we might read across to his master, even if we don’t ask: is he a future Nazi? 

Dix trained at the School of Arts and Crafts in Dresden, then volunteered and spent the war fighting on several fronts. That, together with reading Nietzsche, reinforced his bleak view of humanity. Nor did lack of money help:  ‘I have no need of recognition from the narrow minded middle class’, he asserted, ‘but I do need the narrow-minded money’.  Marriage to the wealthy Martha Koch helped, as may be suggested by how he looks to her in Sander’s photograph of the couple.

August Sander: The painter Otto Dix and his wife Martha, 1925-26

Dix, who was among the ‘New Objectivity’ artists seeking to depict the decadence and hypocrisy of post-war society, relished the chance ‘to shock those with weak nerves’ by focusing on social extremes. His paintings of prostitutes, for example, can be seen as exposing the base instincts behind the conventional ideal of love, with that standing in turn for the realities behind all aspects of life - and death.

Otto Dix: Woman on a Leopard Skin, 1927 - mixed media on canvas

Dix was known for his exacting technique, typically drawing ith egg tempera before applying mutiple layers of oil. 'He was the only Old Master I ever watched using this technique', said fellow painter George Grosz. Yet his much freer watercolours are just as accomplished in a different way.

Otto Dix: Servants Girls on Sunday, 1923: watercolour and graphite on paper

It was Dix, not Sander, who claimed that ‘The essence of every human being is expressed in his ‘exterior’… In other words, exterior and interior are identical.’  Yet when his most iconic images pin down a character for inspection, he purposively distorts that exterior.  A woman on a leopard skin rug, unhealthily pallid yet muscular and devilishly keen-eyed, stares brazenly, perhaps accusing, back at us:  we feel Dix is working from inside out to show not as a straight transcription of her appearance, but as his concentrated assessment of her being. Where Sander communicates the humanity in the humble, Dix celebrates, even as he critiques, the grotesque.  Putting the two together draws attention to dualities exaggerated in Weimar Germany, but present in all times.


'A Centenary' runs at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester - 
1 July - 1 Oct 2017


John Minton (1917-57) is known – though he’s hardly famous nowadays – for his troubled, abbreviated life and as a leading neo-romantic, one of a loose group (often taken to include  Sutherland, Piper and Nash) who sought to return to symbolic and visionary evocations of the English landscape tradition.
'Children by the Sea' 1945
That seems correct of his life: a melancholy undertow feeds, albeit sweetly, into the work – even though he was born into comfortable circumstances, and at 26 his grandfather, director of DH Evans, left enough for Minton to act as the ebulliently generous funder of his friends’ entertainment (when passing the department store in a taxi he’d yell out of the window: ‘We’re spending your money, darlings!’). After being denied conscientious objector status, Minton had a quiet war – but his brother was a fatality, which affected him deeply, the more so as his father and elder brother had already died young.
Time Was Away – A Notebook in Corsica, 1947

He didn’t seem terribly conflicted about being gay – a sexuality shared with many of his circle of artists – but he never found a lasting relationship. His liaisons included six years living fractiously with Keith Vaughan, and two with the East End wrestler Ricky Stride, the latter indicative of taste for transgressing the class as well as sexual norms of the time. Despite commercial success and the admiration of his students, Minton seemed unable to settle, travelling almost obsessively around the Mediterranean and Caribbean when term was out. He was alarmed by the nuclear threat and out of sympathy with the emerging agenda of abstract expressionism. He drifted into alcoholism and committed suicide at 39.

Landscape Near Kingston, Jamaica, 1950
The art, on the other hand, doesn’t really bear classification as quintessentially English, and is more uneasy and libidinous than nostalgic and romantic. True, Minton admired Blake and Palmer, and used ruins as a favoured trope even before the war made them omnipresent. Yet he spent most of 1939 in Paris, and  more enduring influences proved to be de Chirico, early Picasso and three French-based artists, also known as neo-romantic: Christian Bérard and the Russian-born Eugène Berman and Pavel Tchelitchew.

Fishing Boats in Corsica, 1948 - lithograph

Minton was highly productive and wide ranging. He was a particularly fluent draughtsman with a natural sense of design which made him an influential illustrator.  There are surrealist aspects to the peopled landscapes of the 40’s.  His precise and somewhat angular portrait style was different again. A late move towards history paintings saw him take on increased complexity and scale. He wasn’t notable, despite that range, for formal innovation. Minton believed that the choice of subject was ‘paramount’, calling for ‘a love of certain things’ that was ‘no souvenir, no memory, but the thing itself made again in paint’. 

Jamaican Village, 1951
 His own most fertile subjects, built on the many drawings he made when travelling, were exotic and homo-erotic. His 1950 trip to Jamaica was particularly productive: he responded to the tropical colour and the chance to depict semi-naked black bodies with an understated, but undeniable, charge of desire. Yet Minton also discerned ‘a disquiet that is potent and nameless’ – and palpable in Jamaican Village, 1951. Ultimately that’s what makes Minton worth re-examining: he was a natural existentialist, one who laid his self bare through instinct rather than theory.

Self-Portrait, c 1953

Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham 26 Nov- 19 Feb 2017; Pallant House, Chichester 11March - 11 June 2017

The story of many 20th century painters turns on their passage from a relatively conventional representational mode into the mature abstract style for which they become famous.  On the face of it, Victor Pasmore (1908-98) fits the expected narrative particularly well. Born in Surrey, his progress was slowed by the sudden death of his father in 1927, which forced him to earn a living as a civil servant rather than attending art school. Nonetheless, by the time war broke out in 1939, he had established himself on an amateur basis as a painter of assured landscapes, figure and still-life, and was a respected figure in the London art scene focused on the Euston Road School.

Pasmore at the Festival of Britain, 1951

Anne Goodchild, the curator of this survey of Pasmore’s work from the 1930’s to 60’s, says that ‘nothing seemed to suggest the radical change in direction his work was to take’. Yet, though it was very much against the London current of the time, that’s just what we do expect, looking backwards. Who, after all, who would remember Pollock or Rothko had they stuck to their early academic styles? What the 50 works brought together in Nottingham demonstrate is that Pasmore, more unusually, was a significant and original painter both before and after prior to his move to abstraction, and made many of his finest works in the transition. 

Snow Scene, 1944

Pasmore’s 1930’s work is attractive but in thrall to its post-impressionist sources. By 1942, though, he had forged a personal style. Snow Scene, 1944 is typical with its atmospheric calm counterpoised by vertical rhythms without reducing what Patrick Heron called ‘the vital communication: air, light, space’. Pasmore could have pursued such lyrical use of abstract patterning within representation to become a figure equivalent to, say, Sutherland or Piper.  Pasmore could have pursued such lyrical use of abstract patterning within representation to become a figure equivalent to, say, Sutherland or Piper. But in 1948, he discovered a painting made up only of coloured squares by Paul Klee – not essentially an abstractionist – and ‘decided straight away that this was the objective point from which I could start again’.

Spiral Motif in Green, Violet, Blue and Gold: The Coast of the Inland Sea, 1950

 The great spiral motif series of 1948-51 bring full abstraction to paintings organised as if they were landscapes.  These gave way to reliefs constructed from preformed industrial materials, embracing the machine age to ambiguate their space with quiet drama. Still, there’s room for doubt: they are in debt to the Bauhaus and, as John Berger said at the time, ‘remain slightly funny – looking like bathroom fittings’.

Relief Construction in White, Black and Indian Red, 1961
Pasmore’s constructivism was well suited to interacting with architecture (as at the Pilkington Staff Club) or feeding into buildings:  he spent much of 1955-75 designing housing units, road systems and the controversial but celebrated Apollo Pavilion for Peterlee New Town. That became the focus of his innovation: in the art there’s more of a sense of working through the discoveries of his ‘hot period’ of 1943-52 than of striking out afresh; and after moving to Malta in 1966, his paintings settled – perhaps a little too comfortably – into poured or sprayed colour leaning towards organic forms.  Yet that key decade, so evenly balanced between figuration and abstraction, makes Pasmore a significant figure in the history of British art.
Mural Relief 1958 at Staff Centre Pilkington Glass Works St Helens

Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern

My Last Door, 1952-4

Various curatorial agendas might underpin a survey of Georgia O’Keeffe. Does she justify her status as far and away the most expensive female artist at auction (£29m for Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1, 1932)? Are her flowers sexual surrogates – a reading she consistently rejected, but which Alfred Stieglitz influentially asserted on the back of their passion as a couple? Is she making a case for female empowerment? Was she, secluded in New Mexico for her last 37 years and more fêted outside the art world than within it, an outsider artist of sorts?

Tate looks to put all that aside in favour of the question that matters: how good a painter was she? That hardly any of O’Keeffe’s pictures are normally in Europe underlines what an exceptional chance this 125-work retrospective provides for Britons to make a broad judgment. O’Keeffe had a long and productive life: 1887-1986, covering 17 US presidents. Yet she remains famous mainly for a small minority of her 800-odd canvases: flowers and animal skulls, with their surreal aspects open to erotic or existentialist interpretations. Those, though, are just two among many subjects that resonated with her, and which she abstracted in order to isolate their essence. Indeed, she pushed that agenda much further with her less familiar motifs: desert landscapes, the pelvis, views from an aeroplane (e.g. Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962) and 20 versions of a wall with a door in it and paving stones in front (such as My Last Door, 1952-4).

Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962

O’Keeffe said that she actually bought her rambling home in Abiquiú, New Mexico ‘because it had that door in the patio, the one I’ve painted so often. I had no peace until I bought the house’. That suggests the critical importance to her of an observational starting point, of working from the outside in – as opposed to her fellow New Mexican isolate Agnes Martin, who worked from inside out to distil the feeling of a place. The catalogue makes much of the anticipations in O’Keeffe of Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field painters, but one can see why Clement Greenberg didn’t buy into what he called her ‘pseudo-modern art’: O’Keeffe was coming from a different place. The same place, pretty much, as Ellsworth Kelly, as she herself acknowledged. But where Kelly dispensed with surface effects to investigate the painting as sculptural object, and pushed on to a point at which his works’ origins in the world became fully hidden, the mature O’Keeffe retained both painterly inflexions and explicit and eponymous subjects.

Pelvis I (Pelvis with Blue), 1944
What all those near-empty subjects lend themselves to is the projection of infinity, and the effect is reinforced by the way in which O’Keeffe moves directly from foreground (the bone of the pelvis, say, in Pelvis 1, 1944) to distance (the sky seen through the gap in the bone) with no middle ground. Where the flowers pitch us into a vortex, the more abstract works open out our perceptions. For all their differences in approach, much of O’Keeffe’s best work turns out to arrive somewhere not so very far from Rothko and Martin.

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE runs until 30 Oct, Mon-Thurs, Sun 10-6, Fri, Sat 10-10 

Dan Flavin in Birmingham

There’s something of a paradox at the heart of Dan Flavin’s work. He’s famous for arrangements of commercially available fluorescent light units in four standard lengths and ten standard colours -  pretty much all he produced from 1963 to his death in 1996, and all you’ll see at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery (13 April – 26 June). Flavin insisted on his work’s literalness, saying – as cited by the show’s title –  ‘It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else’. And yet, in spite of his simple and consistent means, complexities accumulate.  

Pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), 1963
 First there’s the sheer variety of effects Flavin was able to generate once liberated – as it seems – by self-imposed constraints. For example, Pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), 1963 uses just one unit to disrupt our perception of space by eliminating the darkness from a corner. That contrasts with the chromatic riches of untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977, for which the corner placement gives Flavin the room to mount six vertical fixtures facing back onto six horizontal fixtures facing forward, so that hot pink and yellow stands against a cool penumbral glow of blue and green – while both colour zones bleed to the side. Differently again, the comparatively austere series dedicated to the utopian revolutionary spirit of Vladimir Tatlin explores the many possible configurations of seven white units to build architectural effects.  

untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977

Then there’s the matter of pinning down exactly what we’re looking at. Is it sculpture, drawing, painting in light, installation or just the functional means of illuminating the surrounding space? The primary aspect varies: untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3 has many of the qualities sought by colour field painting, whereas Untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room), 1968, shows Flavin as one of the first artists to think in terms of whole room installation: it illuminates a space from which we are barred, deflecting our attention to the architecture, and to the play on Lichtenstein’s 1961 painting I can see the whole room! ….and there’s nobody in it! The voyeurism of Lichtenstein’s man looking through a spyhole transfers to us.  

Untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room), 1968

Those examples also illustrate the role played by Flavin’s titles, which alternately refer us to possible parallels, suggest meanings personal to Flavin, or make dedications to other artists which hover between homage and dry self-awareness of the potential for overblown comparisons. After all, Flavin’s style of “monument” – hence the quotation marks round those to Tatlin – has inbuilt impermanence: they can be turned off at any time and their parts need regular replacement. Is there also a spiritual aspect to Flavin’s eloquence? Light has a central symbolic role in the history of art, and even if he hadn’t trained as a priest before taking against religion, one can read Flavin as evoking ecstatic or transcendental states, whether divine, meditative, trippy, or even – as Pink out of a corner may suggest - sexual. 

"monument" for V. Tatlin, 1964

Is Flavin’s art, then, so straightforward? The Ikon provides a chance to decide whether we go along with his self-assessment - and the show’s own curatorial emphasis, or would sooner advance the counter-cliché ‘wishing doesn’t make it so’.

Phaidon's Ellsworth Kelly Monograph

Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973

This timely doorstep of a monograph (Phaidon £75, 368 pages, 350 colour illustrations, five contributors, 3 kg) provides a comprehensive overview of the painting and sculpture of the late Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2016), known for a 70 year production of rigorously colourful forms which brought him fame without ever quite placing him centrally in the story of art. Lead author Tricia Paik, assisted by Kelly’s collaboration and the availability of his archive, lucidly explains his development and critical reception over four chronological periods (leaving a quartet of renowned writers to focus on themes).  Her account of 1923-48 sets out Kelly’s background as a shy, stuttering boy from New Jersey, keen on bird-watching and drawing, who spent 1944-45 in the ‘Ghost Army’ of camouflage experts which deflected the German intelligence through such ruses as inflatable tanks. 1948-54 saw Kelly remain in France just as the New York art scene was taking off, facilitating the development of an independent style which came to maturity in New York City, 1954-70. Recognition was slow, but substantial by the time – in tune with his love of nature – he then moved upstate.

Blue Curve, 1994

Kelly has often been miscast as a follower of Mondrian or as a minimalist.  Yet Grünewald, Audubon and Picasso meant more to him. With none of Mondrian’s spiritual bent, the wellspring of Kelly’s art was always the world from which he abstracted shapes with the aim of catching the essence of an ‘already-made’. “My paintings don’t represent objects,” he said, meaning that he avoided graphic depictions of what he saw, “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things.” That’s the logic of multi or joined panel works, such as Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973; and fits how , for example, the relationships of form and colour in Kelly’s snapshot of a paper cup squashed underfoot can be traced to the typically voluptuous Blue Curve, 1994.

Spectrum V, 1969

Three main achievements emerge. First the sensuous derivation of abstraction, while avoiding the expression of the artist’s own hand which one might expect to go with that, is Kelly’s own. Second, he has a way with clarion colours. There isn’t a system (“I don’t know what I want”, he said, “ my eye does”) but as Richard Shiff points out in his essay, Kelly seems unusually able to ensure that his colours reach uniform saturation within such works as the Spectrum series or Yellow with Red Triangle, with its equal colour values. Third, as Gary Garrels explains, Kelly took masterful account of how his paintings engaged with the wall which formed their ground, and with their setting as a whole. That led him increasingly into sculpture and majestically-scaled intersections of art and architecture.

Ailanthus Leaves I from Suite of Plant Lithographs, 1966

That third achievement points to a limitation of this volume, as illustrations tend to make Kelly’s paintings look more like the minimalist works they aren’t. The spatial encounter with Kelly can’t be fully captured on the page, of course, though a higher proportion of installation views might have helped, plus perhaps a section on the plant drawings. Those, which Kelly made for over 60 years, provide a parallel history of how looking fed his simplifications. This book, then, is no substitute for the work - but if you want to make the most of experiencing that, here’s how.

Alexander Calder at Tate Modern 

The work of Alexander Calder (1898-1976) has rather disappeared in plain view: we’re used to the fact that every major museum has one of his famous mobiles, but find it easy to pass by without feeling particularly challenged. Tate Modern’s new show seeks to remind us of the radicalism behind making the sculpture move for us instead of us moving round the sculpture. It excludes the static ‘Stabiles’, which feature monumentally in many public squares, and the vibrant gouaches. Nor are there any films or re-enactments of how Calder employed his sculptures in dance and opera. The focus is determinedly on work interacting with the viewer: a substantial selection of Calder’s 200 mobiles, and the wire sculptures which led up to them.
The Brass Family, 1929

Calder was born – in Pennsylvania – into a lineage of sculptors, but delayed following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, training as a mechanical engineer before something of an epiphany on a naval voyage to Guatemala in 1922: the sight of the sun and moon rising and setting simultaneously on opposite sides of the ship started him painting, and he enrolled in art college in New York. That awakening stayed with him; the basis of his work, he said, remained ‘the system of the Universe’, in that ‘the idea of detached bodies floating in space… some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form’. 

Red and Yellow Vane, 1934

Calder’s second source of fascination, arising from a journalistic sketching assignment in 1925, was the spectacle and choreographed action of the circus. He re-enacted its sequences through the 70 models of Le Cirque, 1926-30, which he housed in a suitcase to facilitate travelling performances.   Calder had begun using wire to bring his drawings of animals into space: Le Cirque uses this technique within its mixed media, and separate, larger works employ just wire. The Brass Family, 1929, is typical of those, both for wittily exploring the analogies between the balance of acrobats and the balance of sculptural weight, and for an erotic edge which led Calder to describe himself as ‘more ‘Sewer-realist’ than Surrealist’
Triple Gong, 1948

Those two inspirations meshed with the influence of the artists he met in 1920s Paris: Miró and Arp played a part, and Duchamp proposed the term ‘Mobile’ – but it was a visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930 which led Calder to turn his love of motion and play towards abstraction. Now, too, his feeling for the interaction of the skies returns to temper those ludic instincts with an intimation of elemental energies. There is a long tradition of sculpture in movement – in religious processions, for a start – but Calder was the first to make sculptures perform by themselves. The restless mutability of his mobiles might stand for the experimental approach driving his art as a whole, which varies immensely across an oeuvre of 16,000. The most celebrated mobiles are delicate metal structures suspended from the ceiling, painted in primary colours and designed to move gently with the airflow like clouds drifting by (as there are no fans, the curators have taken pains to ensure that visitor movements will be sufficient to create the right degree of draught*). Other mobiles, though, are fixed to the wall or mounted on bases – such as Red and Yellow Vane, 1934, which is also simpler than most. The Tate’s show, then, is a chance to assess afresh the variety of spatial and kinetic effects Calder achieves through his universal circus of orchestrated movement over and around us.

* This was a preview: as it turned out, Tate failed miserably in this aim, delivering an embarrassingly static show

© The World of Interiors/The Condé Nast Publications 

About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.